Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway is one of five finalists for the 2012 Byron “Whizzer” White Award. The award, given by the NFL Players Association honors those who go “above and beyond to perform community service in their team cities and hometowns.” In most circles, the story of the significance of the award is who is up for it – this year, it’s Greenway, Pittsburgh QB Charlie Batch, Dallas TE Jason Witten, Chicago CB Charles Tillman and Cleveland TE Benjamin Watson. They don’t look beyond the name of the award and why it significant.
For the most part, two or three paragraphs summed up the Whizzer White finalists. End of story. Let’s move on with our lives.
But the genesis of the award is a tribute to a phenomenal NFL talent to whom football was important but not the full focus of his life’s ambitions. He was a man whose life history is one that should be emulated by anyone who aspires to succeed.
(Just so this doesn’t come off as a maudlin tribute to White (or Greenway), we offer up this. VU rarely allows interesting photos to go unnoticed. As such, click the link. Somewhere, the notion that if Creed ever needs a replacement lead singer, the Greenway in that photo would do nicely.)
That said, let’s go a little deeper into why this relatively anonymous award has significance.
White was a Colorado-raised kid at a time when Colorado wasn’t on the college football radar. Football was his entre into a free ride to college. A three-sport athlete, he embodied the notion of the student-athlete – where the “student” comes before the “athlete.” Many NFL players can make the claim that they went to college to get an education. White did. He was a three-sport athlete but was at the top of his class academically. In his senior year at the University of Colorado, White was named student body president, due in no small part to his largesse on the football field.
White was an All-American running back for the Buffaloes and the NFL came calling. While a far cry from the NFL of the modern era, if a football player had better options in the non-sporting world, they jumped at that chance. At the time, football wasn’t viewed as being all that different from working as a professional wrestler or a carnie. White had bigger fish to fry in his personal and professional life. The NFL was a means to an end, which is why the improvement of the lives of others is what embodies the award named after White.
Following his All-American career at Colorado, White was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who would later become the Steelers. He led the league in rushing and was rewarded as the league’s highest-paid player because of his talent. However, he had higher aspirations. Named a Rhodes Scholar, he deferred his opportunity to study at Oxford College in England to give the NFL a chance. But as the timeline advanced to be a student studying abroad at one of the most prestigious institutions, he went to Oxford and turned his back on the NFL.
He returned a year later and signed with the Detroit Lions, becoming not only the highest-paid NFL player, but one who was paid $15,000 a year to be the Lions’ featured back – a sum that rivaled that of top business executives. He was something. In 1940-41, he played for the Lions – leading the NFL in rushing for the second time in two years in 1940 – and was as big a star as the floundering NFL had. But, on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States got pulled into World War II. White could have avoided the draft in its early stages, but opted immediately to help defend his national honor. He never played in the NFL again.
White joined the Navy. He wanted to be a Marine on the beaches or the battlefields, but colorblindness prohibited him from doing so. He went into naval intelligence and wrote the official report on the sinking of PT-109, which was infamously helmed by a high-achieving son of a millionaire named John Kennedy.
When JFK became president in 1961, he rewarded White’s loyalty by naming him assistant attorney general – second only to JFK’s brother, Bobby, to whom he had a tad bit more loyalty. When an opening came up on the U.S. Supreme Court, Kennedy nominated White for the position. Even in the partisan politics of the day, he was quickly ratified and served on the High Court for more than 30 years.
Staunchly driven by his convictions, White often chapped JFK’s inner circle because he voted with his conscience and not along political lines. Legal scholars still debate White’s role on the Supreme Court, but all defer in respect to the way he conducted his business. From the gridiron to the highest court in the land, White excelled in his own way – which makes an award named after him worth noting in more than a couple of paragraphs.
If Greenway wins the award, it will end up among his trophy case mementos in an honored spot. Without the the background on White, it’s not an award that stands out in the public’s consciousness. It’s not the Heisman Trophy. But it’s given for what a player does when the game clock isn’t ticking that gives it as much (if not more) relevance than an on-field honor.
Whether it’s visiting a children stricken with cancer that won’t see the 2013 season or the new Vikings stadium or helping pay for OSHA-approved bleachers at high school fields in South Dakota, Greenway is a deserving finalist for the award and, short of a Super Bowl ring, it might be one of the most treasured memories of his playing career if he wins it next week.
Fans won’t remember why the Byron “Whizzer” White Award is significant, but Greenway will and, in the words of Oscar non-winners, it’s an honor just to nominated.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.